The Right to Equal Treatment: Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

In July 2012, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, together with Charlie’s mother Debbie Munn, went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Denver-area bakery, to purchase a cake for their wedding reception.  After they informed the bakery’s owner that they were a same-sex couple, he told them he would not sell them a wedding cake. He said that because of his religious beliefs,  he would sell wedding cakes only to heterosexual couples. 

The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which found the bakery had violated Colorado law.  The bakery admits that it had a policy of refusing service to gay couples seeking wedding cakes, but argues that it has a right to discriminate based on religious and free speech grounds.  The Colorado state courts rejected this argument.  The bakery sought review of the state ruling by the Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on the case this fall.

The question before the Supreme Court  is whether the Constitution provides a right to discriminate in violation of longstanding laws that apply to places of public accommodation, including businesses that are open to the public, like Masterpiece Cakeshop.  

What’s at stake here?

A decision upholding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s ruling would preserve our longstanding commitment to laws barring discrimination by places of public accommodation.  Laws like Colorado’s ensure that people previously subject to discrimination can go about their day to day life, without worrying whether they will be turned away from a store because of who they are.  These laws provide access to businesses and services that range from medical care to restaurants, from hotels to  public transportation.

Nineteen states, and the District of Columbia, have laws that specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in places of public accommodation. 

A radical reading of the Constitution

 Masterpiece Cakeshop argues that the Constitution’s free speech protections allow businesses with an expressive or creative element to refuse service to some people, in violation of laws against discrimination.  If the Supreme Court were to agree,  any business owner that provides custom services or products could claim a right to discriminate – and it likely wouldn’t be limited to discrimination based on sexual orientation.  This would mean that printers could refuse to sell invitations to a birthday party, a hairdresser could refuse to cut hair for a bat mitzvah, or a caterer could refuse to prepare food for a graduation party.  A funeral home could even refuse service to the surviving spouse of a gay couple.  It could even allow businesses to argue that they have a right to violate other kinds of laws that protect consumers, like fraud protections and more.

The bakery also argues that its religious beliefs entitle it to an exemption from antidiscrimination laws.  If the court agreed with this view, it could allow all kinds of businesses to refuse service because of religious objections.  It could open the door to discrimination against people of minority faiths, against women, against single parents, and more. 

Have there been other challenges like this to nondiscrimination laws?

While most businesses, including most small businesses, oppose exemptions to allow discrimination, this isn’t the first time courts have encountered objections to nondiscrimination laws on religious or free speech grounds.   In 1964, soon after the federal Civil Rights Act was enacted to bar race discrimination by places of public accommodation, a small chain of BBQ restaurants in South Carolina called Piggie Park continued to refuse service to Black customers.  The owner argued that his religious beliefs about integration should allow him to break the law; he lost at every stage.  

Citing religious beliefs, Bob Jones University argued that it had a right to refuse to admit interracial couples or students who supported interracial marriage.  Schools have argued for the right to pay women less, because their faith said men were heads of households.  A newspaper argued for  a free speech right to post “help wanted” that listed jobs for men and jobs for women separately, in violation of anti-discrimination laws.  And a law firm sought to defend its refusal to hire women as partners, claiming First Amendment rights of expression allowed the partnership to choose to associate only with other men.  In all these instances, the courts refused to accept the idea of a constitutional right to discriminate that the bakery seeks here. 

Any change that would authorize discrimination in this case would undermine the nation’s civil rights laws.  It would essentially permit Masterpiece Cakeshop to put in its window a sign that says, “Wedding Cakes for Heterosexuals Only.”  It would mean allowing the Constitution to be used to protect discrimination.

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Anonymous

Maybe you should get a law degree the baker owns a privately owned business and the two individuals we're not denied any civil or constitutional rights....

Anonymous

By requiring him to serve these customers, the government is in no way restricting his right to protest what he perceives to be an ungodly law. He could literally deliver the cake, walk outside their house and start picketing.

Its ridiculous to suggest that making a cake -- even an artfully decorated one -- amounts to some sort of compelled speech or endorsement of his customers' views. The only view he risked endorsing was that of "I heart my customers". And he failed.

Anonymous

The lawyers for the ACLU are officers of the court. A court laid out by the Constitution of the United States, to which they took an oath to defend. Yet there entire argument is based on the idea that the constitution (and the rights and protections) have no place in the United States. The entire argument appears to come down to whether the supreme court is going to uphold the right to freedom of religion on behalf of the bakery owners, orbor disolve the constitution and the union.

Anonymous

The federal courts have already stated that a privately owned company can not be compelled to violate the religous beliefs of there owners. Hobby lobby, chick-fil-a vs the affordable care act.

Isaiah X. Smith

I disagree with you. Currently to my understanding, it is against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for any public accommodation to deny any customer service based on the race of the customer. So, if Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd wins in the United States Supreme Court, public accommodations will then have a right to deny service to customers based on their race. Not only that, but technically speaking I could see public accommodations refusing to be in compliance with state health code laws if the owner's believe that state health code laws that apply to their restaurant violate the owner's freedom of religious beliefs. This case actually reminds me of the 1900s when interracial marriage was taboo and when their was segregation in society. Individuals used religion back then to justify their discriminatory and their prejudiced views and so did government officials who had a job as to providing marriage licenses to interracial couples or with regard as to providing access to public schools that were not segregated. It is understood that the United States is a constitutional republic in which the Constitution of the United States is the Supreme Law of the Land. With that being said and however, this does not mean that a person can do whatever that they want to do pursuant to their asserted beliefs of their constitutional rights. A person cannot yell in a crowded facility "fire" to induce public panic when their is no fire. A person cannot openly burn a flag, as a form of protest, without having something to make sure that their flag burning protest does not cause other fires unintentionally. While a person also may have a constitutional right to bear arms, this does not mean that person has a constitutional right to have access to every type of weapon in their residence that is imaginable. The Untied States has laws to keep order and to help make sure that the United States stays a civilized society. So, if a public accommodation is open to the public, they need to be in compliance with all laws that apply to public accommodations and they need to serve all.

Anonymous

The fact is that David Mullins and Charlie Craig, infrenged on the religious belief of others, and engaged in active targeted discrimination of the bakery owners. David Mullins and Charlie Craig should be charged with hate crimes in accordance with the law.

Anonymous

The fact is that David Mullins and Charlie Craig, infrenged on the religious belief of others, and engaged in active targeted discrimination of the bakery owners. David Mullins and Charlie Craig should be charged with hate crimes in accordance with the law.

Anonymous

To the commenter who cited Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby is completely inapplicable to this case. Hobby Lobby was in re: a federal statute that incidentally burdened the religious beliefs of the owners of a closely held corporation. As a federal statute, the S. Court was obligated to review such case, according to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires strict scrutiny. And, while the Court acknowledged the compelling government interest of requiring health insurance plans to offer birth control to employees with no copays, the Court ruled that there was a "less restrictive" method of achieving that goal -- which was to let the businesses (and ruled that, due to the strict terminology in the RFRA that corporations do have religious beliefs) take advantage of a scheme that was in place for religiously based non-profits -- fill out a 2-page form, send it to the government and the government would work with the insurance companies to pay for birth control (instead of the employer).

Now, Masterpiece Cakeshop involves Colorado law. The RFRA does not apply to state and local laws because it was rule unconstitutional with respect to those laws. A much lower standard, rational review, is to be applied - as set forth in the S. Court precedent, Employment Division v. Smith. In addition, even if strict scrutiny was applied, is there a "less restrictive" means available to Colorado to achieve its goal of eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation in the public marketplace (which was ruled as a valid government interest in another case, Hurley, re: MA's law)? The answer is NO, which is why the baker's attorneys didn't bother to put a "less restrictive" method in its materials.

Anonymous

If you think about it its gay to pray because your getting on your knees for a guy

Anthony E.

Sorry, but some business require the employees to take part in the events.

I find men sticking their tongues into other men's mouths repugnant and morally reprehensible.

A photographer who is a Christian should not be forced to be in a place where such objectionable behavior is going on.

And, I am sure that the Supreme Court will agree.

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